April 26, 2021

Thoughts on Good Shepherds

Sunday was the fourth Sunday of Easter and for those of us that follow the lectionary we read the passage in John 10 where Jesus refers to himself as the "good shepherd."

If you do a Google image search for "good shepherd" you find lots of images of a white man with a glowing head, flowing hair, well-manicured beard, in a very clean robe and holding a calm, also very clean and well-manicured lamb.

While likely painted by folks with good intentions, let's get a few things straight that most of the images do not:

Jesus probably didn't use hair product or a beard trimmer.

And he wasn't white.

I've written before that we have to pay attention when Jesus uses the adjective "good" to describe something in the Gospels (the "good Samaritan," for example). The same applies here.

Shepherding was a thankless job. It was often risky and difficult work. Few people would have wanted to do it. But some may not have had options. A shepherd's income could be unpredictable. If sheep were attacked by a predator–this could have great impact on the shepherd's well being.

But I don't actually think Jesus intended to contrast himself with all the other sheep herders in the region. He doesn't intend to slander a whole group of the working class in his region.

The Hebrew word for "good" was "tov." It's the word used in Genesis when all God has created is described as "good." But this Hebrew term did not simply mean good as in good v. bad. It also implied functionality, wholeness, beauty.

I don't like my Google–search–good–shepherd–Jesus images. I don't think those give us the same imagination as those in the near east, in the first century when they heard Jesus say this. In their mind's eye I bet they saw someone with dark circles under their eyes from sleepless nights watching out for thieves and hungry animals. Their robe is soiled having trudged through mud and dusty hills with these filthy animals. I don't imagine that words like functional, whole or beautiful would have been terms that would have come to mind when one thought of a shepherd.

Back when my two oldest kids were in middle school, I would watch this woman "herd" children and teenagers across a busy road. At the time, we lived in Washington, DC. If you have not lived in DC, trust me: people driving along this NW corridor are some of the most self-important drivers in the country. How dare anyone get in their way?! They have important meetings to get to.

Sarcasm aside, I would watch this woman do an incredibly difficult job each morning. It's a thankless job. In the sweltering heat. In the freezing cold. There's no way they paid her enough. She was honked at, flipped off, yelled at, ignored and nearly driven into at least once a day, 5 mornings a week. And she did it with an ease that was astounding. Every child crossing those four crosswalks were hers. Each morning I would hear, "Come on, babies!" She would walk right in front of a Lexus or semi-truck and command them to stop immediately when those kids were on the move. No fear. No hesitation. You ought to be afraid that she'll come through your windshield and warn you to never creep into her intersection ever again.

This was her house. These were her kids. Do not mess with her babies on her clock.

And suddenly, I see Jesus.

"Come on, baby! Let's get you across this road. I'll step in the way of anything. You'll get their safely."

Didn't matter if you're walking to work, to the school right behind us or to another school down the road. At this intersection, you belonged to Jesus.

There's a nobility, a charisma we often assign to this passage that may misguide our imagination. Certainly, there is a bravery and self-denying love that is communicated in this John 10 passage. I'm purposely not delving into the Christology that I know is there and deeply appreciate. I'm doing so because I think there is something else important here. I wonder if our images of Jesus (whether on a canvas or in our minds) sometimes miss his incredible capacity to simultaneously display cosmic majesty and accessibility to the lowest of the low all at once.

Jesus is not only shaping how we are to see him in this passage.

He's challenging the assumptions we make about each other.


Assumptions we desperately need to change.

… Here's an ordination sermon I gave a few years ago with some other thoughts on good shepherds:



NOTE: This post was adapted from an another post a few years ago.

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